INDIA is a land of miracles, where godmen and mystics mesmerise audiences with wondrous feats of magic. In great cities and remote villages alike, these mortal incarnations of the divine turn rods into snakes, drink acid, eat glass, hibernate and even levitate. Some live as kings, their devotees numbering hundreds of thousands; while others – virtually destitute – wander from village to village pledging to cure the sick, or bring rain in times of drought.
As a child in rural England, Tahir Shah learned the first secrets of illusion from an Indian magician. More than two decades later he set out in search of this conjurer, the ancestral guardian of his great grandfather’s tomb. Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the story of his quest for, and initiation into, the brotherhood of Indian godmen. Learning along the way from sadhus, sages, avatars and sorcerers – it’s a journey which took him from Calcutta to Chennai, from Bangalore to Mumbai, in search of the miraculous.
In Calcutta, Shah is apprenticed to Hakim Feroze, a tyrannical master of illusion, who sets out to crush his student’s spirit through grueling physical trials. Eventually, his pupil’s skin bruised and raw and his temper strained, the magician unlocks the door to his secret laboratory. The miracles of India’s godmen are at last revealed one by one: how to swallow stones, to stop one’s pulse, turn water into wine, and many more. Next, as a cryptic test, Shah is sent to ferret out the secrets of Calcutta’s Underworld – gaining the confidence of the city’s aging hangman, its baby-renters, and skeleton dealers. Then, just as Shah is making headway, Feroze announces that he’s to pack his bags and set out at once, on a ‘Journey of Observation’.
Along the way Shah witnesses a ‘duel of miracles’, crosses paths with an impoverished billionaire, and even meets a part-time god. Revealing confidence tricks and ingenious scams, SORCERER’S APPRENTICE exposes a side of India that most writers never even imagine exists.
A quest for the bizarre, wondrous underbelly of the Subcontinent, Shah’s travels lift the veil on the East’s most puzzling miracles. The Journey of Observation leads him to a cornucopia of characters. Illusionists all, some are immune to snake venom, others speak through oracles, or have the power to transform ordinary water into petrol.
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I never planned to write SORCERER’S APPRENTICE. It happened because I couldn’t get my time with an Indian magician out of my mind. As is often the case, my quest for magic and illusion in India seemed quite normal at the time. But when I got back home to Europe, I began thinking about it, realizing that I had delved deep into a world which many people don’t know exists.
From the first moment I travelled in India I was transfixed by the society, by the cultural colour. It hit me like a bucket of ice water. I found myself feeling that, after India’s goulash, other countries were thin soup. And at the same time, I was obsessed with learning magic from a godman, as I had met a conjurer from India in my childhood.
When I wrote SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, the critics were kind but disbelieving. Some of them implied that I’d made the whole thing up. What I have been trying to explain ever since the first copies hit the bookshop shelves is that this is a story of India – a land where the unbelievable is the norm. I wish people who don’t get this point would leave their usual lives in Europe, North America or wherever, and would travel to the Indian Subcontinent. If they left right away, they could be having breakfast there tomorrow morning… and they’d understand that India is a place crafted in magic.
I had known that the idea of writing of my experiences with Hakim Feroze, the great magician, would be extremely frowned upon by him, and they were. Feroze telephoned me one night when it was pouring with rain. I can remember the call. As soon as I heard the ‘click’ click’ of the international line, I’d known it was Feroze. He was fuming. As far as he was concerned, my time with him was denigrated to fodder for a travel book. It is a view that upset me greatly. I have always held Feroze in the highest respect. When he died in 2001, I felt an emptiness that I have rarely experienced.
I hope that people who read SORCERER’S APPRENTICE will allow themselves to be sucked into the reality of India. And I hope they will then go on their own travels in that land. Let the book not be a guide, but a catalyst. Dive in to the culture. Thrive, enjoy every breath.